This is Skeezix’s Brain on Gaming
Is Tropico 6 Still Worth Playing?
Call me a nerd, but I love development economics. It’s a fascinating field! What makes a poor country rich? Why does it happen so rarely, and almost exclusively in the global North? And how can developing countries today pull such a transition off?
Of course, I also love strategy games, as you know, so when Kalypso announced that they were putting out a title (developed by Limbic Entertainment) that combined two of my interests, I was sold! The game seemed to allow for complex management (with each citizen individually simulated), while at the same time including the kind of ridiculous dictator-y stuff that makes any banana republic simulator memorable, like arbitrarily arresting your citizens and stealing the Eiffel Tower.
It’s now been a year and a half since the game released, and since I’ve recently returned to it, I thought I would do a review. So I’ll pose the question again: Is Tropico 6 still worth playing?
As always in my reviews, I’d like to start by covering the game’s presentation. I find that things like the graphical quality and music don’t directly impact my enjoyment of the gameplay, but they do affect my impression of the game overall; I’ll feel like I enjoyed a game more when they were well-done. On the other hand, I rarely find myself feeling that an otherwise-good game was made unplayable by poor graphics or music. That means that presentation isn’t quite as important as the other aspects of a game, so it makes sense to cover first.
While Tropico 6’s graphics aren’t stunning, I have to say that I really like the way the game looks. While I’ve never played the other five Tropico titles, some of them seem (based on screenshots) to tend towards the muddy and dark — hardly suitable for an island paradise. 6, on the other hand, is bright and colorful, and if some of the models (especially for boats) aren’t particularly fancy-looking, well, that’s hardly going to be a deal-breaker. Unlike in some other management games, a well-run island in Tropico really looks well-run — the game encourages you to maintain an orderly, compact layout through its mechanics (because citizens can’t travel very far to fill their needs), which leads to satisfying visual feedback as well. Imagine Factorio, but with more crocodiles.
The music is nice as well, giving you an idea of what might play on the radio in Tropico, but the track list is, I find, a bit short. Games with a more “active” soundtrack (i.e. music with lyrics that you listen to as opposed to more ambient tracks that play in the background and establish a mood) need more variety, because the more the music draws for the player’s attention, the more easily it can bore them. While Tropico’s soundtrack never quite gets annoying, it certainly could do with a few more songs.
The game’s writing, though, is sharp and funny. While some of the characters (mostly the faction leaders) are based on pure stereotypes, they liven up the game quite a bit and make it that much easier to love. Penultimo gets all the best lines, particularly with his characterization of the Second World War (which I won’t spoil here). While some of the gags get less funny with time (particularly the ones tied to common tasks), they were clearly written with heart, and they do so much to set Tropico apart from its many rivals in the crowded management genre.
Next, let’s move on to Tropico’s mechanics, the nuts and bolts of gameplay. This includes things like UI (honestly, for a management sim, it’s mostly the UI), alerts, and how well the game “scales,” which I’ll explain in a bit. If these pieces don’t fall into place, a game with intricate, fascinating systems and otherwise well-designed gameplay quickly becomes a grind, as you, for example, have to check through all of Europe looking for suitable marriage candidates in Crusader Kings 2. So does Tropico get this right?
Well…mostly. The UI is decent, but at launch it was missing a lot of information, like what was affecting the efficiency of a building, where to place buildings to grant them the best bonuses, and what exactly would affect citizens’ needs. Much of this has been fixed, but problems still come up sometimes; as an example, it’s often difficult to tell why you are making or losing money, because the Revenue screen in the menus only describes the last 12 months. Since almost all revenue is from exports, and ships only arrive once every four to six months, this can vary wildly and not provide useful information. There will be, ah, more on this later. Still, though, things are mostly functional, and as long as players don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of how, exactly, things are working.
Alerts are fine. There’s a noticeable sound, and they don’t stack up so you don’t know what’s important and what’s not (which is a crime Paradox often commits). Alert windows generally give you all the information you need to make a decision — there are relatively few instances where you click something without knowing what, exactly, it’s going to do. You do tend to get bombarded with notices whenever a ship comes in, since so many tasks are tied to importing or exporting things, but that’s fairly standard for the management genre — and besides, if you didn’t want to deal with alerts, why are you playing a strategy game?
The game’s “scalability” is good as well. What do I mean by that? Many strategy games have a problem where, even if things work smoothly at first, whenever the player expands their settlement/conquers more territory/buys more property (whatever it is you do in the game in question), they become overwhelmed with little decisions to make. A good example is the aforementioned CK2 marriages, or Hearts of Iron IV frontline management; both fun at first, but less fun when you’ve been doing it for minutes and minutes on end because there continue to be more and more problems to solve. Tropico’s decisions all come in at the top level (politics, diplomacy, the constitution, what buildings to build), and since the population only grows marginally faster at the end compared to the beginning, you don’t have tons and tons of new unemployed citizens to find jobs for. If you’re into manually arresting criminals to fill jails with forced labor, thus generating wealth (not that I would know anything about that), you can run into some issues where the police aren’t fast enough to arrest all the Tropicans you tell them to, but that’s pretty much an edge case.
All in all, the minute-to-minute gameplay of Tropico feels smooth without being frustrating. While occasional issues do crop up, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into the game’s complex sandbox, making little decisions that don’t weigh on you, trying to figure out whether it would be better to invest in your military or maybe add another couple of coal mines. That addictive feeling of managing money, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and designing the city is what makes Tropico work for me.
This is normally the part of the review where I would discuss the story, but, honestly, there isn’t any, so instead I’m going to zoom out and take apart the game’s longer-term aspect: Missions, advancement through eras, and the strange, hard-to-solve problems that you run into as you get into the later stages of the sandbox. Many strategy games run into problems in this area; the minute-to-minute gameplay may be fun, but the longer you play, the more boring the grind, or the less functional the game’s systems. Does Tropico do a good job of evening things out? Well…read on.
Previous Tropico games did have a Story Mode, but for 6 they decided instead to do a selection of missions, which all sort of tie into an overarching story but can easily be played by themselves. I suspect this took quite a bit less development time, and that that was why it was the strategy chosen by Limbic Entertainment, but I think that it was a good choice for other reasons; I spend most of my time in Sandbox, but missions provide a change of pace without (usually) being frustratingly difficult or overly confusing. Your goal is usually self-explanatory (exporting chocolate in Chocolate Factory, having a large population without building houses in Shackland), and it feels straightforward enough to achieve them, although you do sometimes have to get a little creative. They’re more of a nice diversion than a full-fat experience on their own, but playing through all of them could take on the order of twenty to thirty hours — certainly nothing to sniff at.
In Sandbox mode, the main form of long-term progression is advancement through eras. Each of the four brings new things to manage, new problems to solve, and more factors to juggle as you try to chart a course forwards. My issue with the system is that, often, moving to the next era creates more problems than it solves. The jump from the Colonial Era to World Wars feels especially jarring — advancing because you want to unlock the cigar factory can land you in a lot of trouble when you suddenly have to manage elections, the constitution, international relations, healthcare, fire prevention, crime safety, rebels, and so on. Your citizens’ political leanings are partly determined by happiness in the Caribbean as a whole (having low relative happiness in Tropico makes them less likely to support you), and Caribbean happiness starts to go up very quickly in World Wars and beyond, making elections difficult to win if you don’t plan properly. This all means that you want to accumulate a large nest egg before you move on to World Wars, since you’ll immediately want to build large numbers of buildings — but it’s hard to stack up cash when your best money-maker is the humble rum distillery. Strangely, subsequent era transitions don’t bring these problems, since they introduce fewer new mechanics. It would have been good if more time was spent ensuring that Sandbox mode didn’t include these difficulty spikes.
Speaking of difficulty, it seems we’ve come to the single weakest part of the Tropico 6 experience — the random, unexplained catastrophes that can sink a Tropico campaign almost without warning. These happen both in Sandbox mode and during missions, but they are more frustrating in Sandbox, since you’ll usually have spent much more time on a Sandbox campaign before things start to fall apart. Every Tropico player has run into it at least once; essentially, when your buildings are making less money than they pay their workers in wages, you start to have huge financial problems that can’t be easily resolved. Finding the buildings that are losing money is impossibly difficult, because from the UI it looks like every building is generating a surplus, except for particularly unproductive plantations; in fact, though, the cost of transporting the goods they produce to the docks, combined with the cost of providing services like housing, education, defense, and healthcare to the workers within, may well add up to more than the industry is producing. And there’s absolutely no way to tell whether that’s the case. Workers are even being paid as they walk to work, so if they live far away you’re losing money — but there’s no way to see average commute times in the UI. To solve these money issues, you have to either guess at what’s not making money and demolish it (which is a dangerous game to play), or take the game’s one available loan, which is for the very insufficient sum of $50,000, and try to use the cash to juice your economy by building what you think should be more profitable industries — although, of course, you don’t know.
And money is only one side of the story. The other thing that can sink you without warning is political unrest, caused by low happiness and therefore low approval. As I outlined before, happiness can quickly spiral out of control, leaving you desperately building social services and trying to improve your citizens’ lives. This can lead to money problems, even if it does solve your political issues, which isn’t guaranteed. Once approval gets low enough, you start to be in danger of losing elections, which can cause a death spiral; sometimes, the only way to win an election is to falsify the results, which guarantees victory, but (as Alexander Lukashenko could tell you), people who voted against you will be, shall we say, miffed. If you were very unpopular, that drives these people into the opposition, even to rebellion, which makes further elections impossible to win democratically and forces you to rule with an iron fist; there’s no way back up from the basement of martial law. That would be annoying rather than game-ruining — if martial law didn’t also kill your tourism industry, potentially gutting a Tropico that relies heavily on foreign visitors. And, of course, rebellions can eventually get so big that you can’t repress them, no matter how many soldiers you deploy. And getting dragged out onto the street and shot is actually even worse than losing reelection.
So…is Tropico 6 still worth playing? It’s a fun, colorful, engaging sandbox with witty writing and an addictive feeling of progress — a feeling of progress that’s occasionally derailed by factors completely out of the player’s control. It’s a shame that more thought wasn’t put into the UI, since most modern games do a much better job than Tropico at giving information to the player.
Still, though, the game really makes you feel like a cigar-smoking, narcissistic dictator. After twenty hours of playing it, I feel like I’m almost ready to run for President. I would recommend trying other, slightly more polished offerings first — Cities: Skylines and Rimworld come to mind as stellar management sims — but if you’re a fan of the genre, you really shouldn’t miss Tropico 6. ¡Viva El Presidente!
I give Tropico 6 three mysteriously-unprofitable canned-goods factories out of five.
Originally published at http://skeezixblogs.wordpress.com on October 24, 2020.